Just four short weeks ago, I was a victim of sexual harassment at my job. I moonlight as an assistant in a college library. Three days ago my father, unbeknownst as the time, met my harasser at a poetry reading. They shook hands, introduced themselves, and proceeded to pose for a series of pictures now available via Facebook. I don't blame my father; how was he to know? He was aware of what had happened to me, but I didn't provide specifics or a detailed descriptions of my assailant. Thankfully enough time had passed for me to somewhat laugh this off. I mean, what was next? Tea time with my rapist? A phone date with one of my cat callers? Oh, the irony.
If this were two weeks ago, I could not tell you what my reaction would have been. I could guarantee it would be anything but laughter. Women have shrugged off worse for decades; hell, probably for centuries. I know I've dealt with worse (not so sure about the shrugging part though).
Right after the incident I went into shock. I hovered between ignoring the situation entirely and complete mental shutdown. I left work that evening without telling anyone. I was not even able to tell my husband when I arrived home. He was watching Parks and Recreation. It was the episode where creepy sewage Joe sends every woman in the department a picture of his penis.
As a person who has experienced sexual trauma in the past, I had finally come to a place where I felt safe. Yet, it seems that God (are you there, it's me Caitie?), is bent on destroying the security I have finally come to possess.
He was a friendly student. I had formed a rapport with him over the course of the year I had worked there. He often showed me pictures of his kids or his home. I had even met his children in person. He had complimented me before, but never in a way that made me feel uneasy or scared. It seemed like he was just a lonely divorced guy in his late 30s who wanted someone to talk to.
It was his birthday. When he asked me if I wanted to see a selfie, I assumed it would be like pictures he had showed me before, not a closeup of his dick. Boy, was I wrong. At first I chalked it up to my own stupidity, but then I realized this was manipulation. Why did he choose to do this on his birthday? When he had known me for months? Because he thought I wouldn't tell. He thought in my weak little woman heart I would say, “Oh jeez, just forgive him, it's his birthday after all!” and let his violation just float on by. It was about power. It was about being in a position where he could force me to do something without my consent, knowing full well that I would NEVER give it willingly.
The next afternoon at work, I went straight to the Dean to let her know what happened to me the prior evening. I was so scared. It seems that all I ever see in the news is how colleges mishandle issues of sexual harassment and assault, so I felt positive that I would be met with wary glances from the administration. However, for the most part everyone was extremely supportive, especially my immediate boss and coworkers. Not quite everyone was so supportive, though. One staff member had the audacity to ask me about my relationship with the student off campus, which I sent a scathing email about. In my paranoia, I forwarded every email about the situation to my personal email and made a timeline (including specific dates, times, and actions taken regarding the situation).
I didn't know how it would feel to see him again. Unfortunately, I found out two days later. Although security had pictures of him, he beelined past them straight for the library. He was probably looking for me to test the waters after my hostile reaction two days earlier (of the “Are you fucking kidding me?” variety). I'm no stranger to anxiety, but I had not experienced a panic attack in many years. The second I saw him strolling through the doors, I slammed the office door shut and called security immediately. My heart was pounding; I couldn't breathe. Intense waves of fear washed over me. I felt as if I were trapped, drowning in my own body.
Thankfully, he was immediately escorted out to meet with the Dean and the head of the Criminal Justice department. I was later informed that he claimed to simply be trying to show me a picture of his backyard. LOL, silly me! Clearly, men all say “I can tell by your face that you didn't like that” after meaning to show you a picture of their rhododendrons.
As a result of my sexual harassment experience, I have grappled with PTSD and its effects for the past month. For those of you who are unfamilar:
Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) is a “condition that's triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.”
The Mayo Clinic provides an extensive list of symptoms including:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event
- Always being on guard for danger
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
PTSD is not only a mental disorder, but also physical. Brain changes take place that are similar to people with traumatic brain injuries. While headaches are common with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD manifests through flashbacks and nightmares.
“But both [PTSD and TBI] tend to cause memory and attention problems, anxiety, irritability, depression and insomnia. That means the two disorders share brain regions… A brain processing system that includes the amygdala – the fear hot spot – becomes overactive. Other regions important for attention and memory, regions that usually moderate our response to fear, are tamped down.”
There are currently several types of therapy and prescription medications available for the treatment of PTSD.
The Healing Process
A month later, I am still feeling the effects of my traumatic experience, although it is slowly getting better. My grad school applications collected dust, my apartment went uncleaned, and I'm still having vivid nightmares. Even though it's been difficult, I'm proud of myself and the way I handled the situation.
If you're being sexually harassed in the workplace, don't let others force you to be silent.
Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women's Law Center, Fatima Goss noted:
More than 10,000 sexual harassment charges were made in 2013 and 82 percent were brought by women. In reality, this number is drastically higher, but of the 25% of women who reported they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, 70% did not report these incidents. “Whether suffering harassment from supervisors, coworkers, or third parties (such as customers), most victims of harassment are still suffering in silence.”